“In a life singular for its lack of attachments, to become obsessed with two women at once was lunacy.”
—Connie Brockway, All Through the Night
“There was no graceful way to collapse a bifurcated existence into a single, uncomplicated one.”
—Sherry Thomas, Beguiling the Beauty
Love triangles have become common in romantic fiction, though for some they're exciting, while for others a reason to throw the book at a wall. But there's one kind that's fun without all the baggage: the love triangle which is really between only two people. Whether the story lies in the realm of masks and disguises, or the secrets and suspense are hidden behind the anonymity of a computer screen, these plots gleefully complicate falling in love— both for the characters uncomfortably having feelings for two people at the same time, and for the characters who know the bizarre truth.
For the person in disguise, jealousy is a common, albeit perverse, reaction. In Jacquie D'Alessandro's The Bride Thief, the Earl of Wesley has a secret life rescuing women about to be forced into unwanted marriages. His dashing alter ego makes a strong impression on Samantha Briggeham, the woman his everyday self is trying to resist:
Needing to touch her, he reached out, took her hand, and entwined their fingers. Warmth eased up his arm at her touch, and it required a great deal of willpower not to simply yank her against him and consign his bloody conscience to the devil.
“Ever since my encounter with the Bride Thief,” she said softly, “I've been unable to suppress my need for adventure. It's as if he burst a dam inside me.”
He froze. “The Bride Thief? What has he to do with this?”
“He made me feel… alive. Made me realize how very much I wanted… things.”
Color rushed into her cheeks, and he gritted his teeth. He hadn't considered that she might be harboring… loverlike feelings for his alter personality.
“It is unlikely I shall ever see him again,” she said.
Damned unlikely. “And if you did?”
“He did not give me any indication that he… desired me.”
Bloody hell, what did she mean by that? Did she want to experience passion with the Bride Thief? The thought of her wanting another man, regardless of the fact that the other man was in reality him, edged his vision with a red haze.[...]
Bloody hell, he was losing his mind. He was burning up with jealousy—over himself.
Sophie Beckett is similarly irrational in Julia Quinn's An Offer from a Gentleman.
'Oh, Sophie,' he muttered, his voice husky against her lips. 'I've never felt—'
Sophie stiffened, because she was fairly certain he'd intended to say he'd never felt that way before, and she had no idea how she felt about that. On the one hand, it was thrilling to be the one woman who could bring him to his knees, make him dizzy with desire and need.
On the other hand, he'd kissed her before. Hadn't he felt the same exquisite torture them too?
Dear God, was she jealous of herself?
Benedict Bridgerton, meanwhile, has been painfully torn between his treasured memories of a beautiful stranger he once kissed, and the real woman he now knows:
Did she understand what she'd put him through? How many hours he'd lain awake, feeling that he was betraying the lady in silver — the woman he'd dreamed of marrying — all because he was falling in love with a housemaid?
Why are these heroes and heroines hiding in the first place? Some are fighting for social justice, like the Bride Thief or the Scarlet Pimpernel-ish hero of Truly by Mary Balogh. (Balogh has used the lover in disguise plot several times, including Daring Masquerade, Gentle Conquest, and A Masked Deception—the latter two are faux-adultery plots.) The heroines of All Through the Night by Connie Brockway and The Devil to Pay by Liz Carlyle are Robin Hood types. In Cinderella-inspired stories like An Offer from a Gentleman, the truth can just seem too fraught and difficult; the Cinderella in Sherry Thomas's Delicious saw no future with her prince to begin with, and the passage of time only made things more complicated. (It's interesting that so many of these stories have their roots in other classic plots.)
Of course, a lover in disguise is the perfect set-up for a revenge story. In Beguiling the Beauty, also by Sherry Thomas, Venetia Easterbrook resolves to seduce and abandon the Duke of Lexington — a “rage-driven, slightly incoherent scheme” — after he publicly denounces her as an example of heartless, untrustworthy beauty. Naturally she's caught in her own trap, while Christian is horrified at the way he is still susceptible to the incandescent beauty of Mrs. Easterbook, despite now having found a real love, “founded on substance,” with a woman whose face he's never seen.
The most self-centered reason for a double life is probably found in Judith Ivory's Beast. Charles is playing a petty game of seduction with his own fiancé, after he discovers she's aghast to have been betrothed to a much older, ugly “beast” of a man. But he's also hoist upon his own petard:
He was halted by an odd feeling, that of somehow cuckolding himself. He realized that, if there was tender communion, a once-in-a-lifetime act, he wanted it for himself, his real self. He wanted something for them to share in memory, not something he could never speak aloud.
With its fondness for masks, veils, and blindfolds, noble thieves and highwaymen, this trope is most often found in historical romance, but it's workable in contemporaries as well. The young adult novel Graffiti Moon by Cath Crowley is a classic “Shop Around the Corner” story, although sans pen pals: antagonistic teenagers Ed and Lucy have an all-night adventure searching for the graffiti artist Lucy feels sure is her soulmate — Ed himself.
The “Shop Around the Corner” plot is now especially workable for contemporary romance because of online relationships — and it offers the interesting twist that sometimes neither character is immediately aware of the connection. Mary Ann Rivers's novella Snowfall is narrated by Jenny, who's been having hot online chats with “C” using the pseudonym “Lincoln.” C is very open to meeting Lincoln face-to-face, but Jenny is also going through a major life crisis, as she gradually loses her vision. “I'm not ready for real,” she thinks. As she discovers her capacity to adapt to her new situation, she becomes open to both the attraction she feels for her formerly despised physical therapist Evan and to the possibility of forming something offline with C.
C, of course, is also Evan, and not knowing the incredibly serendipity of the situation — does that make it a love quadrangle? — he's been struggling with feelings of disloyalty and ambivalence:
You were real as soon as you walked into my office, so intelligent and angry. More and more, you made Lincoln less real, and that worried me. I had a relationship with her that had started to mean something to me. It’s why I wanted to meet her. Needed to meet Lincoln. I had been working through my feelings with you for longer, trying to be honest with myself, then I met Lincoln online. It was confusing. Absolutely everything I was feeling. Meeting Lincoln was important to understand how I felt about both of you.
Snowfall is one of the most carefully constructed uses of this plot, with meticulous attention paid to how both characters would feel and what the emotional possibilities of the situation are.
There are many more versions of this story, far too many to mention here, but I can never get enough. Do you have a favorite?